The general secretary has a cold.

The president is feeling much better. Our leader is suddenly indisposed and on his way to hospital.

Such were the official explanations when, respectively, Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union had three days to live; Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo was long since dead; and Bingu wa Mutharika, the deranged leader of Malawi, had already been struck down by a heart attack.

And, in their own way, each of these official accounts was perfectly true. Perhaps Brezhnev really did have a cold – on top of leukaemia, arteriosclerosis and emphysema, the trio of diseases which combined to kill him in 1982. Who can say that in his last hours Brezhnev was not sneezing away and asking for Lemsip?

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